Did you know that the first Wednesday in April is “National Walking Day”? We tend to think of walking for entertainment as a relatively modern concept, but competitive walking, or “pedestrianism,” was one of the most popular sports in America during the 1870s and 1880s. It is said to have all started in 1860, when a Providence, Rhode Island book publisher named Edward Payson Weston, made a bet with a friend on the outcome of the 1860 Presidential election. Payson, the loser, forfeited by having to walk from the State House in Boston all the way to Washington DC to see the inauguration. Although he didn’t quite make it in time, this feat generated a great deal of excitement and publicity, and spawned a whole nation-wide craze for competitive walking events of various distances, complete with star athletes, crowds of spectators, food, music, and even betting.
Most major towns and cities hosted their own walking events and Wilmington was no exception. A silver medal awarded to Wilmingtonian, Charles Theodore Russell Bates (1871-1895), in 1889 for a “1 Mile Walk” event at the Warren Athletic Club is a wonderful relic of America’s forgotten pedestrian past. Charles, the son of George Handy and Elizabeth Ballister Russell Bates, was a star student, Harvard graduate, and keen athlete. Of the many sports and activities he participated in, it seems that competitive walking was one of his favorites because he won a number of medals for it, which are now part of our collection. By the turn of the century, interest in pedestrianism as a sport began to wane as it was gradually overtaken by cycling and other sports. Nevertheless, our medals from its golden age are a reminder that Spring is finally here. Get out there and enjoy!